BLUE WAVES 42, BULLDOGS 28
Teams visiting the dog pound, the unofficial name for the home field of the North Babylon High School football team, have known for years what to expect from the Bulldogs: ground and pound.
North Babylon runs the ball, and runs it well. Passing is something of a rarity for the Bulldogs. It’s the sort of approach one might expect from a former C.W. Post lineman like Terry Manning, who is in his 22nd year as North Babylon’s head coach.
“That’s what we do,” said Manning.
And what Riverhead does offensively is nothing like it. The Blue Waves utilize a spread out, uptempo attack that isn’t afraid to use the aerial route for first downs and touchdowns.
The two contrasting offensive styles couldn’t be much more different, and that made Saturday’s game all the more intriguing. But what made it even more interesting still was the Bulldogs’ refusal to retreat to their doghouse, lay down and call it a day after falling behind by 27 points in the third quarter. North Babylon pulled to within six points of visiting Riverhead before the Blue Waves closed out a 42-28 win with a late touchdown run by Jeremiah Cheatom, his second of the half.
Asked if he grew concerned when he saw North Babylon chomping away at his team’s lead, Riverhead coach Leif Shay said, “My hair has been gray since the beginning of the season.”
Cheatom had three touchdowns on the day, two of them coming on runs. He rushed for 146 yards from 23 carries. On the Suffolk County Division II game’s first play from scrimmage, Cheatom was on the receiving end of a 64-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Bitzer.
Riverhead (2-1) removed some of its starters, including Bitzer, from the game after Cheatom’s six-yard touchdown run and Devrim Kuckuk’s extra point gave the Blue Waves what looked like a commanding 34-7 lead with 7 minutes 38 seconds left in the third quarter.
“The first quarter and a half, we pretty much were nonexistent,” Manning said. “We just were sleeping out there.”
It looked like the game was virtually over, but it wasn’t.
Jordan Myers of North Babylon (2-1) ran for two second-half touchdowns, the second of which was set up by Danny Gambardella’s successful onside kick, which Daquan Faulk recovered for the Bulldogs.
North Babylon, known for rarely passing, made things interesting with a touchdown pass, of all things. Jake Conner evaded defenders before finding Eric Marzocca for a seven-yard pass to the end zone with 3:44 to go in the game. Gambardella’s kick cut Riverhead’s lead to 34-28.
But the Blue Waves responded to the challenge. On the next play from scrimmage, Cheatom shook off tacklers up the middle and bolted for a 52-yard gain, giving Riverhead first and goal at the North Babylon 4-yard line. The next play saw Cheatom follow Matt Hejmej’s block into the end zone. Bitzer completed a pass to Jaron Greenidge for the two-point conversion and a more comfortable 14-point lead with 2:52 remaining.
“We just needed to put the nail in the coffin,” said Quinn Funn, who played wide receiver and cornerback for Riverhead.
The result was pretty much sealed when Greenidge intercepted a pass on North Babylon’s first offensive play after that. Riverhead picked up a first down and then ran out the clock.
Bitzer had a super game. He went 16 of 21, passing for 283 yards, 242 of them coming in the first half. In addition to his 64-yard touchdown pass to Cheatom, he also had a 62-yard scoring connection with Funn, who made a nifty one-handed catch before taking off toward the end zone. In addition, Bitzer ran for two touchdowns himself.
Bitzer may have thought his day was done when he was pulled from the game with a 27-point lead. But then he was reinserted when things started getting dicey for the top-seeded Blue Waves, who generated 432 yards of offense.
“It’s a hard place to win at,” Bitzer said. “It’s definitely a hard place to come in and [win]. A ground-and-pound team like them, you definitely have to keep fighting all four quarters.”
Riverhead’s defense received seven tackles apiece from Nickolas Ross and Hejmej. Ross might have had the biggest hit of the day, and probably the loudest, when he delivered a crunching blow on Myers in the third quarter.
Melijah Purvis ran the ball 17 times for North Babylon, picking up 100 yards. Connor Slane had nine tackles and a sack for the Bulldogs.
In this age of open offense, even North Babylon is adjusting. The Bulldogs threw the ball 10 times and ran it 41 times.
“Leif does a great job over there,” Manning said. “We’ve had some great battles with them over the years. For us this year, we’re still a team that’s trying to find ourselves a little bit. There’s a lot of new kids who haven’t played before, so it was a challenge for us to come out and play a quality team like this.”
What did it mean for Riverhead to finish the game strong?
“I think it just shows we have a lot of resolve,” Shay told reporters. “We’re not going to quit. We’re going to keep fighting.”